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The OCR Glossary

Social Media

Karen Freberg

Social media provide a personalized, online, networked hub of information, dialogue, and relationship management. These new communication technology tools allow individual users and organizations to engage with, reach, persuade, and target key audiences more effectively across multiple platforms. Industry professionals, scholars, and social media users have contributed a number of different definitions and conceptualizations of the concept of social media. Some emphasize the role of social media as a toolkit that allows users to create and share content. Others focus on how social media extend Web 2.0 technologies to bring communities together.

Social media platforms serve as gateways where content and conversations are created and ignited between individuals, brands, organizations, and nations. In addition, social media platforms provide first-impression management tools for corporations and individuals to showcase their own brands and reputations. These virtual platforms allow user-generated content to be shared in highly dynamic and interactive communities in real time, which allows for co-creation of content, crowdsourcing of ideas and perspectives, and even the editing and extending of conversations and ideas within the respective platforms and with particular communities. This entry discusses the key characteristics of social media, the different types of social media platforms, and the challenges and opportunities posed by using social media for corporate reputation purposes.

Characteristics of Social Media

Social media have several defining characteristics, based not only on the applications in which these tools are used by individuals and organizations but also on the affordances they offer. There are different types of social media platforms based on their type and specific affordances. Visibility refers to the presence of a public profile on a social media platform and content creation and publication. Persistence refers to the content and profiles being indexed and searchable. There are some platforms where the content is easily searchable (e.g., a database, with archived content), while others do not allow the content or conversations to be searched. Editability refers to the content, and discussions are either asynchronous or synchronous based on whether or not the platform allows for revision of the content. On certain platforms, users can edit or change their update after it has been posted, while other platforms do not allow this. Association refers to the digital displays of relationships, communities, and respective followers for the individual brand users. Associations can be a relationship status, occupation, or educational qualification, to name a few. These affordances in social media allow researchers and practitioners to explore possible influences in behavior and reputation management practices online by understanding the dynamics of knowledge creation, identifying thought leaders, and breaking down previously set barriers in the organization and communities.

In addition, there are several key characteristics that make social media different from traditional media outlets such as television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. First, social media are open and dynamic in span and presence. While traditional media appear to be focused on one-way forms of communication, social media content is emerging in real time with multiple parties involved. The barriers to entry for establishing one’s presence on social media are much lower and easier to overcome than those involved with establishing a presence in traditional media.

Social media users are able to bypass the traditional media gatekeepers, who attempt to set the narrative and frame the stories from their point of view. Social media present widely diverse points of view and allow the individual users or consumers to make the ultimate decision about the information they want, how they want it, and whether or not the information fits their overall needs and expectations.

The overall functions of social media are not limited to communicating messages designed by professionals for audiences, in parallel to message construction in traditional media. In addition, social media allow the user to participate to an extent not seen previously in traditional media. Increased empowerment of the individual stakeholder leads to greater feelings of control over a situation and a willingness to help others in the community, which could potentially be used by brands and corporations to engage with audiences, formulate message strategies, and evaluate their own reputation in the eyes of their online audience members.

With these new shifts in power and breakdown of barriers, brands are expected to listen and to respond to stakeholder concerns in new ways. Recognizing the influence of social media provides professionals with the opportunity to use social media strategically to discover potential issues relevant to their stakeholders, to prepare for different scenarios and situations, to implement online communication strategically, and to evaluate the results of communications in real time.

In addition to barriers of entry, barriers of time and location are also overcome by social media, where users can engage in conversation and dialogue in a matter of seconds in widely different locations. Users of social media vary in their levels of active participation and voice. Some users are very vocal on issues that are important to them, while others take the roles of observers and lurkers in social media discussions.

Another key component of social media is the fact that there are different uses and purposes based on the audience in question. The use of social media varies across cohort age-groups. Social media and emerging technologies continue to be used most frequently among those in the younger generations. According to the Pew Research Center, individuals who are 49 years old and younger are more likely than those who are 50 years old and older to be connected on social networking sites. Social media create and maintain networks of personal relationships to a much greater extent than traditional media.

Types of Social Media

Social media platforms are divided by function and overall purpose. However, most social media platforms are indexed, edited, and revised over time; categorized; and searchable online through search engines. Each platform has a specific purpose for the users to create content, initiate a conversation, contribute to knowledge creation, and build relationships with others.

Each of these platforms has unique features and purposes. For example, wikis, the most well-known of which is Wikipedia, allow the display of textual and visual content and give users the ability to edit content. Blogs give individuals and organizations the power to publish multimedia content, but the ownership of the content is by the blog owner, who controls the domain name and URL. Blogs do not allow a community of users to edit them in the same way as wikis. Although readers of a blog can post comments on a blog post, only the blog owner, or those who are given access by the owner, can add blog posts or revise existing posts.

The purpose of social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn is to nurture, promote, and enhance relationships between individuals and organizations. Facebook is the largest social networking site in the world; the company reported that during the second quarter of 2015 it averaged 968 million daily active users and 1.49 billion monthly active users. But other social networking sites emerging from other countries are rising in popularity among various age cohorts. Another universal characteristic of social networking sites is the fact that individuals, who control their own profile on these platforms, can edit and control the content they post on these sites.

Microblogs, such as Twitter, allow individuals and brands to create, curate, and communicate information in real time in a limited number of characters (140 in the case of Twitter). Microblogs allow users to push content to their followers that can include textual information, hyperlinks, images, videos, and even interactive gifs for entertainment, information, and conversation purposes. Since its founding in 2006, Twitter has become the primary platform for sharing real-time updates regarding political events (e.g., the 2012 and 2014 U.S. elections), entertainment and sports events (e.g., the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards), and crises (e.g., the Boston Marathon bombing and the 2015 Paris terror attacks), as well as press conferences, statements from key spokespeople, and conversations. Twitter has evolved by allowing users to share not only text but also images and video clips. Users can also participate in chat sessions surrounding particular common interests and topics by following a hashtag, which is a key word preceded by a # sign to allow users to track and follow certain conversations. Many corporations presently have integrated a branded hashtag to help manage their reputation (e.g., Honda, Ford, and Starbucks), as well as embracing user-generated hashtags from their community. Corporations are able to monitor, track, and evaluate the success of a hashtag within a campaign through social media monitoring platforms and analytics using the application programming interface. Using the application programming interface, corporations can create tools and software programs to work with Twitter. In addition, users can get content out to audiences who are not part of the community with the use of hashtags for key terms on trending topics, news items, community events, and industry-related issues.

Visual and “snackable” content forms such as Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat are emerging as dominant platforms among users, particularly from the younger generation. Vine, a part of Twitter, is focused on creating 6-second videos showcasing creative content in short-video format. Instagram has grown in popularity over the years and was purchased by Facebook in 2012. Instagram allows users to create and upload images as well as 15-second videos. Messaging apps such as Snapchat, Secret, and Yik Yak are just a few examples of platforms that allow users to interact with each other with content that is either anonymous or “disappearing,” meaning that it is only available to the users for a brief period.

Benefits of Social Media

Social media can provide many benefits to organizations and users in a variety of different ways. First, the platforms are easily accessible by being visible and user-friendly for organizations to create knowledge, initiate conversations, and even monitor internal behavior within the organization as well as external behavior by stakeholders. These platforms are visible for others to consume information that is published on the respective sites by individuals and organizations. In addition, social media have allowed communities of users to collaborate on topics relevant to the organization, share knowledge, and address challenges through crowdsourcing measures. These communities can be initiated inside as well as outside the organization.

The prevalence of social media platforms has placed a much greater emphasis on initial impressions, credibility, perception of actions and behaviors, and the reputation of brands or corporations involved in a situation, compared with the dissemination of information through traditional media.

Although there are challenges involved with creating and sustaining a positive and vibrant community online, and risks to users and brands, social media also provide many benefits and opportunities.

First, social media provide an open and dynamic online community. Individuals and corporations can participate in various communities that are linked together by similar interests and backgrounds. These communities can brainstorm ideas, share perspectives, and engage in dialogue to formulate networking relationships. For example, Hootsuite has created a brand ambassadorship program for users around the world to share their stories and experiences openly and to connect with other potential users and stakeholders in social media.

Second, social media have broken down the barriers of time and location. Corporations can now engage and communicate in real time with audiences around the world through multiple channels. In addition, corporations are able to be a part of a larger community where multiple voices, perspectives, and stories are showcased. While this can raise concerns in the area of control over a particular message or situation, it can still provide many opportunities to address the concerns before they translate into crisis situations.

Third, social media allow users a platform to educate and engage with audiences in both positive and negative situations. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and others are being utilized not only for information sharing and forming new network connections but also for real-time coverage of events, dissemination of information to family and friends about a specific event or situation, directions on where to get more information and updates in the news, and other communication facets that can reduce levels of uncertainty and connect communities to the information they need to make informed decisions. Individuals want information they can use that will reduce their uncertainty and give them action steps to take that they can personally control.

Corporations enjoy many benefits from using social media. Social media allow for the implementation of traditional strategies and tactics to engage with and reach key consumer audiences. First, there is the power of looking at social media as a living, breathing, and engaged focus group. Corporations can monitor key words, the quality of the content, relevance, immediacy, corporate mentions, and the overall sentiment on a range of topics to help guide them in their campaign initiatives, manage their reputation, and start a conversation with their audiences. Second, users are highly engaged in business and e-commerce practices on social media. For instance, social media platforms can be effective for sales promotion initiatives and promoting contests for exclusive opportunities and experiences.

Last, social media have brought forth a new urgency to the need to manage corporate and personal identity, which can influence how stakeholders and others view a corporation and even a reputation manager. Individuals and corporations are strategically using social media as an extension of themselves by presenting personal information, photographs, and stories to share with their friends and others. Being online and creating an online persona are becoming more and more important, so certain strategies have to be taken into consideration. First impressions formed on the basis of social media content are immediate and durable. Corporations, stakeholders, and social media monitoring companies such as Hootsuite, Sprout Social, and others are able to capture conversations, actions, and messages to be shared with others as evidence to influence perceptions, which can ultimately affect corporate reputation.

Challenges of Social Media

Getting content, conversation, and messages out to key target publics is both challenging and scientific in nature. Before sharing content on social media, certain aspects must be taken into consideration. First, the targeting and the overall purpose of using social media should be discussed. Considering the audience—key demographics and psychographics—and the type of social media used by the targeted individuals is crucial for the most effective strategic implementation of social media practices. Second, the success of the posting on social media should be assessed. Key performance indicators allow users to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of their content, conversations, and campaigns on social media. Reach (organic or paid), engagement, sentiment, immediacy, influence, and relevance are among the key measures corporations, professionals, and individuals use to evaluate the effectiveness of social media.

Content shared on social media can spread rapidly from person to person, which can raise challenges for corporations and brands to control the narrative within their online community, which could result in reputation damage. One of the social media concepts under constant discussion is whether or not a post has gone “viral.” “Virality” (a result of effective real-time marketing) occurs when a piece of content is disseminated from one person to another rapidly, eventually spreading across communities and networks, and even resulting in stories in the traditional media. Measurement of virality varies from platform to platform, which is an important element to consider when evaluating the success of viral content. Facebook has comments, likes, shares, and even video views to showcase the power and presence of content that has gone viral. Twitter has retweet and favorite buttons, and Instagram has like and comment options.

One of the more iconic corporate cases resulting in virality involved Oreo during the 2012 Super Bowl event. During the game, there was an unexpected blackout event where all of the lights went out in the Superdome. Using corporate Twitter accounts, Mercedes and Audi went back and forth about the reason behind the blackout. The corporate account for Oreo entered the discussion by including an image of their product with the simple message “You can still dunk in the dark.” This was an effective use of newsjacking (a term coined by David Meerman Scott), which essentially means a brand or corporation strategically interjecting itself into a trending topic of conversation. However, there is a time and place for real-time marketing and newsjacking on social media.

Many organizations attempt to control their messages by stating publicly that employee messages might not be reflective of the organizations’ values and mission statements. These statements and controls have complex legal implications. Transparency and authenticity are not the same things. When the two are aligned, a positive and proactive reputation will be created, but if there is a disconnect between the two, the result can be reputation dissonance.

Another social media challenge is the increased presence of marketers. While social media platforms essentially are about establishing a community, marketers have infiltrated certain platforms to push their messages, promote their own content, and use the social media platform’s data on individual users to target them more effectively. Privacy on social media continues to be an issue for platforms and brands such as Facebook and Google. In addition, the rise of anonymous apps and platforms such as Whisper, Secret, and Yik Yak has resulted in several high-profile cases involving cyberbullying. Not being able to address the user who is making derogatory comments about an individual or corporation can make it even more difficult to combat threats to reputation.


Social media have become a mainstream communication platform for businesses, organizations, and individuals. However, even with the rise of this digital platform, there are still audiences and businesses that are unaware of the best practices and strategies to use for communicating with their audiences through social media. To be successful on social media, corporations must have a sustainable presence, embrace conversations with all audiences, share knowledge and insights, and make sure their online identity is aligned with their off-line corporate reputation.

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See Also

Channels; Content Analysis; Engagement; Feedback; Key Messages; Media; Network Analysis; Network Theory; Noise; Rumor and Gossip; Semantic Network Analysis; Stakeholder Media; Use of Social Media in Crisis Situations; Web Analytics; Whuffie

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